An Interview with Dr. Emily Finer, Degree Convener in Comparative Literature at St Andrews

Toti Sarasola
12 October 2014

“For me, Comparative Literature is an undisciplined discipline in a world where literature is no longer national.”

finer-interviewHaving to explain to people what we actually study is a painful experience few of us have to endure. When students tell us they study Medicine, Physics or History, we usually know what they mean by that. But, when I tell somebody that I study Comparative Literature, their eyes usually show signs of confusion. After a while of trying to explain what it is, I realize how hard it is to characterize the discipline, even being a student of it. Dr. Emily Finer – Degree Convener of Comparative Literature and Head of Russian at St Andrews – has kindly agreed to talk to me, in order to elucidate this very question: What is Comparative Literature?

Dr. Finer did her undergraduate, Masters and Ph.D. at Cambridge, a time during which she took several years abroad in Russia, where she taught English and worked for Cambridge University Press. While her initial undergrad was in English Literature, her Masters was in European Literature and her Ph.D. on “Viktor Shklovskii reading Laurence Sterne” which
shows a growing interest towards developing a comparative approach to literature. After going to Harvard for two years as a Frank Knox Visiting Fellow, Dr. Finer lived in Poland where she finished writing her Ph.D. After teaching Russian Literature and Language at Cambridge, she came to St Andrews as a Teaching Fellow in Russian, to become a full-time lecturer and one of the founders of Comparative Literature.

In this interview, Dr. Finer tells us why she believes that the simple act of comparing is so important, and why it is an inevitable approach toward literature in the 21st century. She dwells on the undefinable nature of her discipline and thinks this is a very positive aspect of it. Dr. Finer feels that Comparative Literature should be politically engaged and discusses at length the peculiar attitude her discipline should have towards the established canon of literary texts. All of this is conversed before Dr. Finer confesses a few of her own literary preferences, almost against her will…


T.I: What can you tell us to lend a glimpse of your life as an undergrad at Cambridge?

I studied English at Cambridge. But it turned out that I needed to take a year out before
starting – so I randomly decided to go to Russia. This meant that by the time I took my place at Cambridge, I had spent a year in Moscow teaching English. In turn, my view on English always had this kind of Russian outlook.

There were very few rules. You would spend one hour a week with the professor, and they would tell you: “Next week, write on Dickens.” They wouldn’t give you a question or a reading list. On top of that, you would have to write the essay very fast. A week later you would need to hand your essay to the professor and discuss it for an hour. There was hardly any coursework and the exam questions were often surprising. As a result, Cambridge English students were very good at writing unfinished things.


T.I: So, it seems that you started doing comparative literature, before actually engaging with Comparative Literature as an academic discipline…

It really is my belief that, even within Russian literature, there is no point teaching anything in isolation. Most literatures are so absorbent of others that to gain a full understanding of a text, it is necessary to bring in a combination of literary/cultural backdrops. So, I would never teach Russian literature without some English literature. If I was teaching Pushkin, I would always have in my handout a poem by Byron, who Pushkin really liked, to see how he engages with it. That’s quite a strong pedagogical belief I have.


T.I: Were you a motivating force behind the creation of C.L. as an undergraduate degree? In case you were, why did you feel it was time that St Andrews offered the course?

We wanted to work together more as a school. Also, we believed there were tons of students who were interested in the literature taught in different language departments, but who were not able to learn all our languages. In Britain – and this is different from America – it has always been the case that people are supposed to read literature in the original language at university. Until C.L. was created, a student of French at St Andrews wouldn’t have the chance to read Dante, and a student of Italian would probably not be able to write an essay on Bulgakov. A lot of us are literary translators, and yet our students rarely had a legitimate chance to engage with our translations.

There was a great group of people in Modern Languages who got along together and wanted to create a new degree. There were also a lot of colleagues here in different schools such as English and Art History who were willing to teach collaboratively. In a University context, C.L. is a chance to combine the expertise of different specialists.


T.I: How would you characterise the discipline of Comparative Literature to somebody who knows little about it?

I’d say one of the advantages of C.L. is that it is a discipline that does not take itself too seriously and provides flexibility. It is a questioning discipline, which is usefully vague, and responsibly self-questioning. It is perceived very differently in each country or university where it is taught.

For me, C.L. is an undisciplined discipline. It is a contemporary discipline; existing in a world where there are no national literatures anymore. The systems of production, dissemination and consumption of literature are no longer national and certainly not local. People read Primo Levi at school, all round the world, and they don’t all know they are reading a translation. And while it is a shame on one hand, I think it is a real opportunity, because it means that many boundaries have disappeared.

Having said that, the responsibility of C.L. is to challenge this global English power structure, where small literatures may disappear, and it is hard to get translations published, even into English. C.L. has to do two things: it has to reflect how students and researchers work now – which is in global networks. But, it also has to look at the politics of exclusion.


T.I: Judging from your response, would it be fair to say that C.L., by definition, is politically committed to certain ideas? Perhaps, more than the study of national literatures?

Yes, I would hope so. And I think that the need to define itself means that it is politically engaged. Simply to acknowledge influence, as I would in my research, or reception, is political. To argue that Pushkin is not a unique writer, that Pushkin is receptive to Western literature can certainly be political.


T.I: On the topic of the move from the local to the global… Not long ago, a big controversy unfolded when Michael Gove tried to withdraw classic American texts like To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men from the GCSE syllabus, to favour British canonical texts written by Shakespeare and Austen. What does a “comparatist” have to say about this retreat from the global to the local?

It is dreadful. I see absolutely no point whatsoever in restricting a syllabus in this way. When choosing texts for schools you should be choosing those that will excite students and be relevant to them – or be irrelevant in productive ways. There is absolutely no reason to choose a canon because it is historically a canon. And, how unsurprising that the British authors named here are both white and English!

I don’t care if somebody comes to St Andrews and studies C.L. having never read anything by Shakespeare. They can do that at any point in their lives – hopefully they will want to read Shakespeare, because they will see that he is one piece of the puzzle.


T.I: Talking about the canon: what is the attitude from “comparatists” toward the established canon of literature? Full acceptance, moderate respect or absolute defiance?

It is no more than curiosity. It is not respect, not acceptance and not defiance either. I think it is purely curiosity. You cannot pretend that it does not exist. You have to acknowledge there are many of them. There are canons that are established on narrow national traditions, pedagogical traditions, class traditions, etc. Examining personal canons or talking about what students have been required to read in different contexts is one of the most fun parts of teaching C.L.

I want any student who comes here, whatever their educational background, to have access to the texts that we study. What I really didn’t want is a kind of assumption that I found when I was a student:
that students should already have a classical education, for example. Or, that they would just know the Bible, and have some sort of common background that maybe 50 years ago everybody at University would have shared. So, I want people to create their own canons and to look at canons that exist with curiosity.


T.I: However, isn`t the idea of the traditional canon still quite pervasive, even in C.L.?

Yes, but you should be able to defend, question or change it. We definitely have a canon in sub-honours, but we have never forced anyone to teach a text they didn’t want to teach. It is a self-selecting canon. You can never say to a colleague, “You must teach this book, because it fits with our course.” That is a dead end.

We know from evaluations a
nd feedback that students want to read books they have heard of, which is an interesting fact by itself, but that they are also adventurous about trying new things. I think that the best thing to do with an international student body is to assume nothing and enjoy the similarities and differences.

So, curiosity is definitely necessary. Creativity as well. And skepticism. What about that?


T.I: Now, the questions every scholar will hate…

Top 3 British writers?

That is a really, really difficult question. That is not an easy answer to get from an academic. Almost impossible. Let’s say: George Eliot. Dickens? No, he is interesting to study, but I do not love him. Christopher Isherwood? Laurence Sterne, yes, it has to be Sterne. Hanif Kureshi? Lev Lunts said that his favourite Russian authors were ETA Hoffmann and Robert Louis Stevenson so maybe I should say Pasternak and Vasily Grossman.

Favourite Russian author?

Pushkin. Liudmila Ulitskaia as well.

What book has impacted you the most?

Tristam Shandy. In the true sense of impact, since it has affected my life, in that I spent too many years working on it.

A book you “should” have read but have not?

That is a really long list. Pickwick Papers comes to mind.

Literary century of choice?

All of them. I think it has to be 20th century. Ultimately, I wouldn’t want to miss the literature on both sides of the Russian Revolution.

What language is missing from the Modern Language Department?

That’s easy: Polish. Chinese as well. From a personal point of view, I’d add Yiddish. Comparativists can never pick just one answer.


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